Sunday, September 25, 2005

Digital Auras

I remember reading once that a group of special (I think autistic) school kids wore colour-coded badges to inform others whether they were in the mood to be approached, or if they'd rather be left alone. The writer wryly joked that the rest of us could probably benefit from such a system also. In fact, I'm inclined to take the suggestion seriously. With advancing technology, it might soon be possible for us to outfit ourselves with 'digital auras', short-range wireless transmitters that contain information about ourselves that we want to make accessible (in various possible ways, which I'll expand upon below). These would come with "aura-readers", which allow us to receive the information contained in others' auras.

The aura might have a 'surface' interface which immediately presents itself to anyone who tunes in, perhaps containing basic information such as your name and your current 'receptivity level' (e.g. "do not disturb", "happy to chat", etc., much like you find on MSN Messenger). Name tags would be a thing of the past. I imagine most people would not bother monitoring who accesses this level of their aura - it's the sort of thing which would become absolutely commonplace. This surface level might then offer the analogue of a 'hyperlink' to further details, offering (perhaps restricted) access for those who want to "dig deeper".

This second level of your aura might include some superficially personal info about your hobbies, interests, personality, etc. It might also be a good place to mention whether you're single or not. I imagine that could come in handy, potentially preventing some awkward moments. The curious might want to monitor who accesses their second level, though I expect most would not bother restricting access to it. I conceive of this level as presenting your public persona.

You might then have further level of more personal information yet. I'm not really sure what people might end up using these for. Perhaps they'd say a bit about their emotional state, explaining what they're happy or upset about at the moment, what their long term goals are, what they really value in life, etc. They might have a 'personals' section where singles can say what they're looking for in a partner, like the sort of thing you might find in an online dating profile or personals ad. These sections are for stuff that you wouldn't normally talk to random strangers about, but that you nevertheless want people who are genuinely interested to be able to find out.

I'm not sure what the best way to restrict this information would be. At the very least you would likely want to monitor who accesses the information. If there were strong (and well-respected) cultural norms which forbade violations of privacy, this -- along with the threat of denouncing anyone who inappropriately impinges on your privacy -- might suffice. But that does seem a bit too open, still. You might instead require your individual authorization for any attempts to probe these deeper levels of your aura. Or, perhaps for less sensitive information, it would suffice to rely on a general 'reputation score'.

Suppose that aura-readers develop a 'reputation', whereby the targeted individuals get to judge how appropriate the "intrusion" was. You might give someone a low score for callous or inappropriate intrusions, especially if they went on to misuse the information revealed to them. Conversely, more helpful and empathetic individuals would receive boosts to their reputation score from those who appreciate their concern and subsequent appropriate action. Automatic screeners could then restrict medium-level aura access to those with relatively high reputation scores. In a sense, it would track who is "trustworthy", letting them learn more about you whilst blocking out the scoundrels.

Obviously this is all extremely speculative, and the precise details are flexible. So the important question is: what do you think of the general idea? Is it appealing? Do you think it could help people communicate and get along better in an age of increasing alienation? (There's certainly something appealing about it, for people as introverted and socially reclusive as myself.) Or do you think it is somehow "cheating", or too artificial? Would it prove just another barrier to meaningful communication, much like some see in the brevity and superficiality of txt messaging?

Suppose the technology developed to the point where you could open up 'private channels' between auras, effectively enabling a sort of telepathy (once we get to the point where computational devices are so unobtrusive as to be practically continuous with our unaided thoughts -- e.g. through brain-computer interface). What would the implications of this be? Better or worse than before? Is it necessarily better to communicate vocally, face to face? What if some people just aren't that comfortable at speaking -- wouldn't it be helpful to develop alternative modes of communication? Or, for a more mundane example, is email bad for developing personal connections? It does seem quite limited, but as I suggested in my post on Transphysicalism, it may be a merely contingent fact that our technology is often inadequate to mediate meaningful human connections. I'm not sure that there's any reason to doubt that future advances could, at least in principle, be more conducive to emotional nourishment.

Getting back to the original idea of the no-frills digital aura -- i.e. a "surface-level only" version -- it seems to me that it would have two small but significant benefits in everyday life. Firstly, a "do not disturb" sign could be really nice at times. I guess you could just scowl fiercely instead, but that tends to get tiring after a while. Second, a "happy to chat" sign could make public spaces, e.g. bus trips, a lot more enjoyable. Strangers tend to keep to themselves, sometimes just because it's difficult to tell whether others want to be spoken to, and one doesn't want to risk causing offence or being rejected. Some of us just aren't that good at unaided mindreading. But with the right aids... well, things might become a whole lot easier, don't you think?

P.S. I'd really like to hear what others think about all this. Consider the comments section a "two cents" collection plate. Don't be stingy now! ;)


  1. Yes I think it would work and it will happen!

    I think you could have multiple ways of accessing your data at various levels depending on the person storing the data. One problem is that people like to give different images to different people but that wouldn’t bother some people (early adopters) too much. But I think if you have the ability to have this data on you, you will probably also have the processing power integration to actually have some sort of conscious control over access to it possibly after a little automatic filtering.

    I think those using such technology would eventually "out compete" those not using it even if it didn’t actually provide an increase in standard of living because it makes the users much more powerful. Having said that I think it would.

  2. I'm sure technology can help in some of the ways you've described, but it occurs to me that we do already have ways to communicate a lot of this information. If you're interested in chatting with someone, for instance, you can just approach them and start talking. If they don't want to chat, there are many subtle ways of letting you know. And of course, if nothing subtle works, they can just say "I don't feel like chatting right now." The big problem, as I see it, isn't that we don't have ways to communicate these things. The problem is that social norms prevent us from communicating them. Sometimes you can't say to someone "I'm too busy to talk right now" because it would be rude to do so; sometimes you can't say "I would like to chat with you" because that's perceived as an imposition. Even if we developed sci-fi technologies that enabled us to communicate the same things, why wouldn't the use of these technologies be restricted by the same old social rules? For instance, why wouldn't switching your digital aura to the "do not disturb" mode be considered rude? It seems to me that what we really should do, if we want to smooth communication, is to change the rules. For the most part, I suspect, the technologies we need are already here.

  3. Far out! My reactions to the various features you discussed:

    Level 1 Aura: Sounds like a good idea, especially for someone who is bad at remembering names and is nervous about initiating conversations. I think that there should be several receptivity levels (not just 2) and you should be able to show different levels of receptivity to different types of people (e.g. higher receptivity to single females who are looking to date). Although I'm concerned that this might do away with surprises. Sometimes people in a bad mood who don't want to be bothered feel a lot better after a pleasant conversation. Auras would make people less likely to start conversations with these people, and they would give you the conversation partner another obstacle to overcome (Why is she talking to me? Can't she read my aura?).

    Level 2: I'm ambivalent. Sometimes it's good to get information about other people so that you have something to talk about (like if you find out that you share a common interest or that you're from the same hometown, or that they're an expert on something you're curious about). Sometimes, though, the important thing is to have a few small talk questions to talk about (where are you from, what do you do, etc.), and this may create some rapport or lead the conversation into an area that you never would've expected. Plus, body language and facial expressions can be more informative than words. Also, it can sometimes be bad to have some information about someone. One of the best ways to reduce prejudice against people of type X is to meet someone who you don't know is an X, get along with them, and then discover that they are an X. If you knew from the start that they were an X you would've acted differently and you wouldn't have gotten along. If you have control over who you talk to, you might end up giving yourself an overly narrow set of experiences (that's one of the complaints about the blogsophere - too much factionalization). There is an art to what information you disclose to different people, and when, that this aura does not allow for. For instance, some people will just ask stupid questions if they learn that you study philosophy.

    Level 3: What ever happened to conversations? Once you're getting into detailed personal stuff, human interaction beats one-way flows of pre-specified information (with few exceptions).

    Reputation Scores: Ambivalence again. This could do some good, helping you figure out who to trust, and helping others trust you when you're in need, but it could also increase prejudice, and it could be misused in various ways (like concerted efforts to manipulate people's scores), and it could make life difficult for people who get low scores who really aren't so bad. Also, people's efforts to increase their scores could lead to some good conduct, but it could also lead to some weird/shameless/disturbing behavior.

    Telepathy: Now you're getting really speculative. I think that the value of this depends on what it's like to communicate by telepathy. Is it a lot like spoken conversations, except without the need to open your mouth? Or what? Do you have the same level of control over what you disclose? It has the advantage of being interactive, but I feel like I don't know enough about what would actually be going on to judge it.

    There, that's at least a couple cents worth of my reactions. I'd like to hear from you, Richard, what you think about sharing all of this category-level information about people, in light of your repeated insistence that people should be treated as individuals, not category members.

  4. This is my two cents, and I'll give it for free:

    If it helps autistic kids, well and good.

    Otherwise, I think it is an interesting idea. Nevetheless, I also think it is an extremely clumsy and expensive way of doing what everyone can do pretty well anyway without even having to think about it.

  5. I tend to think this is a way to "cheat" in a social environment and context, as the implicit risk on comunnication is somehow avoided. If we consider speaking as some kind of game, we can see it is so because of some implicit rules and risks. By example, there would never happen that, by talking to someone who primarily doesn't wish to do so (because he/she feels sad, by example), the situatiation gets reversed (because he/she could get happy by chatting a little).
    I agree with david about the consideration of social rules in the use of such devices.

  6. I totally agree. This is pretty much the logical extension of my life right now quite frankly.

    Between myself and my male friends (our female friends still think we're weird) instant messaging has become a much more frequent, convinient, and in some cases, discreet, way to have a quick chat, or for that matter, a long conversation. We mostly have laptops or PDAs, and our college provides wireless, so it's a near constant form of communication. It also helps me control access better than face-to-face conversations (blocking, away messages, etc.)

    Combine this with, even more popular, wave that hit our campus, the Facebook ( Student profiles with AIM links and basic iformation, friend tracking, class tracking, and personal message boards. While the facebook hasn't been a huge attraction for the more tech-oriented of us, at least 50% of the campus (conservitively speaking) has a profile.

    Combining these resources with a more convinient interface and more security and levels of trust would appeal greatly to a lot of people, I think. There are a few caveats, however.

    1. The facebook is considered the ultimate stalking tool. While there haven't been any incedents that have gotten out of hand (that I know of), it is something to keep in mind.

    2. People spend too much time on facebook. Think MMORPG. Addictions aren't just chemical.

    That having been said, I wouldn't be afraid to experiment. Any social system has potential to be abused or leave some people dissatisfied. Common sense, compassion and an open mind are the only way to deal with that reality.

    Oh yeah, I forgot the most important part. A dark aura and telepathic powers would complete my evil overlord thing. TECHNOLOGY HO!!!

  7. Lots of good comments here. Several people have suggested that this is all redundant since we can communicate already just by talking. But I think the aura could offer some extra benefits to supplement (rather than supplant) traditional modes of communication. The major ones I highlight at the end of the main post, in that it offers an easy way to tell how 'open to approach' others currently are. This is not always obvious. Take the bus example again: I tend to just mind my own business and ignore strangers, since I worry that it might be impolite to do otherwise. But most (not all) of the time I'd actually be quite happy to chat with the person next to me.

    The key difference with this new technology is that it's much more passive, avoiding the "implicit risks" as Felipe put it (I don't know why he thinks this is a bad thing?). No-one has to take that first "risky" step of finding out whether the other is receptive, you can tell just by non-invasively reading their aura. It's a small thing, of course, but I think it could have a significant impact in our everyday lives, especially for shyer people.

    David asks why these new technologies wouldn't be hampered by the same old restrictive social norms. I think the passive non-directed nature of the aura makes a significant difference here. If I'm quietly emitting a 'do not disturb' signal, then no individual risks losing face. It's not like I've said "go away" to any particular person. They simply know not to approach in the first place. There's nothing "rude" about my doing this. Their non-directedness makes auras completely different. (Of course, switching your aura to DND after a person approaches would indeed be rude! But I'm considering their use in more passive contexts. The key is that they enable the transmission of information without directed action.)

    Blar - I agree with most of what you say, especially regarding the level-1 stuff. Fair point about loss of surprise, etc. I grant there would be some downsides to this technology, I guess the question is whether the benefits outweigh them. I was conceiving of telepathy as just like talking but without needing to open your mouth. I imagine it could be made more intimate in various ways, perhaps directly communicating moods etc. in addition to words. Dunno. It's probably a bit of a red herring for the present discussion though!

    Back to standard auras, I never really imagined that prejudice could be a problem here, as the pernicious stuff is generally about superficial properties (e.g. skin colour, sex, etc.) which you don't need an aura to see. Further, since all the info contained in the aura would be optional, it seems reasonable to judge the individual based on the information they chose to share about themselves. Readers can probably make a few guesses about what I'm like just from reading this blog, knowing that I'm an aspiring academic, etc., and I don't have any problem with that at all. I'd think it more problematic if they judged me on the basis of unchosen characteristics such as race, gender, or age. But other character traits seem more acceptable. (Otherwise we'd never be able to judge anything about anyone, which seems a bit absurd.)

    I guess it's questionable whether there's any point to having personal information beyond the surface aura. Maybe it's better just to ask people about that stuff. I guess it just offers a bit of a "shortcut", offering some clues about the sorts of topics they might wish to broach, etc. (I'm sometimes a bit impatient with small-talk, but I guess that's just my problem. It's probably worthwhile for the sorts of reasons you mention.)

    The portable 'personals ads' might be interesting though ;) Guess it depends what norms and assumptions developed, e.g. having that sort of info in your aura might just be seen as 'desperate' by some, in which case it wouldn't work out. But it seems a fairly natural extension of online dating, which is starting to become more socially acceptable as people decide they're too busy or whatever to go through the traditional steps. So it isn't entirely implausible to think it might catch on. Though I guess one might question whether such developments would be a good thing. *shrug*

  8. It still seems to me that already-existing technology can do much of the same things as the digital aura does -- at least the "no-frills" version. In fact, I think the color-coded-badge-method is actually superior to the digital aura method, because anyone can see a color-coded badge, whereas to detect the digital aura you'd need to use some kind of gadget. Perhaps the fact that we haven't adopted the method of color coded badges, despite being able to do so, indicates that the badges would violate some social norms. Maybe the badges were used with autistic people precisely because these people aren't ordinarily expected to comply with those norms. If so, then again, the problem is with the norms, not the technology.

    At any rate, I agree with the point about how the non-directedness of the auras makes them less-rude, less-intrusive, etc. However, there would still be circumstances under which they would be rude, intrusive, etc. For instance, it would probably be rude to walk into your workplace wearing a color-coded badge which indicates that you don't want to speak to anyone. I see no reason this wouldn't also be the case for a digital aura indicating the same thing. Indeed, in many social circumstances, you are expected to exude a kind of openness to others -- you are expected, that is, to "seem approachable." In these circumstances, we already have something like an "aura method" -- the "aura" being the degree of approachability you appear to have -- and here again, there are rules governing what aura you are allowed to have.

  9. There would be more than just two options, remember. You could have a "work mode" to indicate being happy to discuss relevant matters, but that doesn't invite trivial intrusions like the more extreme 'free to chat' option might. Or a default which indicates nothing in particular at all, which would avoid all these problems. Even if the other modes can't be used in all situations, there are presumably some where they could come in handy.

    Fair point about how colour-coded badges would do the trick. That just seems less likely to catch on though, perhaps for reasons of fashion or faddishness, rather than because the job they'd do is intrinsically undesirable. Auras are just so much cooler ;)

  10. I'd like to update my comments about the risk given in the comunnication-act. The aproach to comunnication, is somehow determined by a set of rules (social, by example) and states, much like in a game. That is the view I supossed to talk about "risks". Even when the rules are explicitedly fixed, there's still "roominess" in the ways the conversation, by example, occurs. (In this sense, there is also "roominess" for natural speaking, by ex. we talk about some matter without having a previous concense about what that matter is; if I speak about "the risk", what I mean and what is read isn't previously determined as a principle of this-system-of-talking, but remains "roomy") This way, to take action in such a condition could always be considered as a risk.
    Maybe we could want to manage the conditions this sort-of-game plays, by altering the condition we are subjetively, or, as it is put here, informed. But there are, as I pointed before, situations where any information we gather doesn't allow us to be prepared for future actions; I think the ways we communicate in a natural sense, and by this I mean in a natural language, are extremely dynamic. Responsiveness-state, if so considered, isn't a statical sign, as could be transmited by a device like "the aura". The question that arose me was "How can I know what my state is? How an I be sure about this?"I don't think such a device is "bad", or that avoiding the "risk" is so either, but to me the other way seems more natural and senseful. To keep those "risks" allows for a larger possiblity of future conditions, because the system-of-speaking (as I see it; this could be called a "game of language", too) isn't statically or fixedly determined. That is what I consider interesting, the "roominess" of such a (dynamical) "system".


    You mean, something like this? ...

  12. Ha, yeah, I guess something like that could do the job of the colour-coded badges, at least :)

  13. TO the person who wrote about facebook:

    - If we have nothing else to do, then we should be able to utilize the subjects from the internet
    - We would be willing to get off the workstation if someone needed it for school use.
    - It’s our choice to spend our time using ways to express ourselves on the internet.
    - Predators, we don’t talk to people that we don’t know. It only allows you to socialize with people you know by name. There aren’t that many people who have Face book, thus another reason why there aren’t predators. The only way to talk to someone, is if you have okayed them as your friend.
    - The after “5” rule. Face book, is a way to express ourselves, and communicate in a fun way with one another.
    - No computer at home: this might be the only time they can communicate with friends if they don’t have a computer at home; it’s just fun posting and seeing what other people have to say. You might also learn something new about someone you don’t know very well. Thus it could spark new friendships within schools.
    - We don’t give access to our personal information like address, phone number...
    - What about people here until 6 or 7 each night and have nothing to do. Face book is a good way to express them and keep them entertained rather than waste their time doing random searches on the internet.
    - A way for student to communicate with other students at school, who might be in class and who we might not see on a daily basis. It’s not a cell phone!
    - Porn and nudity are forbidden on face book and thus deleting that disturbance
    - There are over a hundred websites just like face book that aren’t as safe and secure as it that we could use. Would you rather us use a site that you know has a greater risk of predators and other dangerous situations? Or a website that you are aware does not expose us to such threats?


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